BOOK REVIEW: The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

One of the ways I can describe ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ is like a dessert after a huge feast – that feast being ‘Reservoir 13’. Everyone has a separate stomach when it comes to desserts, especially after a mammoth feast; but if you are one of the lucky ones thinking “I can take them or leave them actually” then my ever expanding stomach and possibly soon to be diabetes salutes you. But trust me, you are going to want to try this…

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor takes us back to his wonderful town full of foothills and mountains and many a reservoir; dropping us timelessly back in with his deftly crafted townsfolk he first introduced us to in the Man Booker shortlisted and winner of the Costa Novel award 2017 Reservoir 13 (side note – I would highly recommend you read Reservoir 13 before reading this book, trust me it adds to the effect of The Reservoir Tapes reading them in that order).

The book itself is a wonderful collection of interlaced short stories; although the impact is that they add together to give you a glimpse of those that were involved in Reservoir 13; and in doing so make the original book that more powerful, unlocking backstories and shedding light on the events of its predecessor; it’s something that I have never come across before, but something that is unique and devastating all at the same time.

The Reservoir Tapes is set in the days leading up to and after the disappearance of Becky and through these connected stories we’re able to glean more information (plus having hindsight from reading the previous novel), we see how the lives and actions of the townsfolk were driven by things best left hidden (until McGregor opens those wounds with his latest offering) or chance encounters and warning signs that were never reported. It’s as if McGregor were armed with a torch in the midst of a great storm, casting light in the darkest of places, places no one dared look, but now they are in the light for all to see.

I loved the structure of the opening story; we are present at a police interview where we are not privy to the answers to the questions being asked. It is different from all the other stories but at the same time similar as McGregor forces us to be the detectives of this story, and this common link aids in pulling the reader straight back to the events that happened in Reservoir 13 and the continuing quest to find out what happened to Becky.

McGregor’s prose is delightful, coming back to this barren land and starting right where he left off with Reservoir 13. His descriptions of the land, the town and people are all consuming and it’s a fully immersive tale that you can find yourself easily lost in, you just cant help yourself ploughing into his work, eventually finding yourself lost in the rabbit hole of his exquisitely crafted words, and with more questions than answers.

I couldn’t put the book down, it’s a terrific page turner, as McGregor puts you in the drivers seat, like one of those fighting fantasy books of old (by Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone); where you are front and centre trying to work out what has happened, trying to fill in the gaps, tracing links between the original work and this, taking clues on board that reappear in later stories.

I have to admire what McGregor has accomplished with Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes, that being we still dont know what has happened to Becky. It could have been easy for McGregor to show us, but for me that is where the allure and impact of these collective works comes from. It allows the mind to conjure up all types of scenarios and possibilities, and what is more scarier than the things left unseen or the horrors we make up. We are though left with a glimmer of hope when we discover from an autistic child that she is safe, but that my friends may be another story!

The Reservoir Tapes adds to the meat on the bone we were left with in Reservoir 13 and showcases McGregor in all his masterful glory.

The Reservoir Tapes is published by 4th Estate and available here.

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Jon McGregor

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Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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